For the past 15 years I have helped my own companies as well as Clients address change. Here are some tips I have picked up along the way.
1. Change Sucks: While many folks prattle on how “change is good” and should be embraced, the reality is that change means doing new and different things and trading in the comfortable, the tried and true and what one knows for months or years of stumbling, inventing things on the fly and looking quite incompetent. Lets be honest with folks who we would like to help change and acknowledge that it is difficult.
2. People are analog: As much as the world is going digital, people remain analog. We have emotion and we make decisions that are not entirely rational. We care about how we are perceived, we love our turf and we fear uncertainty. Unless one can understand the human needs and concerns when one is looking to deliver change it can get very difficult.
3. Incentives are critical: As Stephen Levy the author of Freakonomics makes clear, to understand someones behavior it is critical to understand their incentives. We behave like we are paid to behave. So whenever anybody asks me for how to drive change I start with reminding them to change incentives. So many industries continue to reward and provide incentives for the status quo while churning out press releases about change. Change only happens if it makes economic and career sense.
4. Fear must be reduced. Because change is associated with fresh and new things it is also associated with a higher degree of failure. Cultures that penalize failure find themselves ossified to the past. The big difference between Silicon Valley and Japan is their perspectives on failure. In Silicon Valley failure is a badge worn proudly while in Japan it often leads to suicide due to loss of face. There are no second chances in Japan and multiple chances in Silicon Valley. If a company had a high fear level (do people whisper?, are folks afraid of the boss?) than the change I recommend to folks is to quit and find a better place.
5. Culture must be paid attention to. Every company has its culture. Some are strong and some weak but often successful companies have very strong cultures. This culture has often been the reason for the companies success but sometimes may be its weakness in the future. Changing or attacking a company’s culture is very intricate and requires both the patience and the precision of a surgeon. Eliminating some key parts of a Company’s culture without understanding its importance or role it serves can not only be detrimental to change but also cause the change agent to be tossed out. The best change agents are experts at understanding company cultures.
6. Tell all the Truth but tell it Slant. This advice is from the poet Emily Dickinson. She goes on to say ” the truth must dazzle gradually or every man be blind…”. Full frontal attacks, hysterical statements about “dead business models” and other melodrama may make good blog copy or conference panel grist but rarely is effective in getting large successful firms to navigate change. The facts must be stated without personal attacks or offering choices that must be made at gunpoint or under fear. Let the facts speak for themselves. Let the reality dawn and rise versus going from darkness to high noon.
7. Bring Data, Facts and Examples. Once a company gets emotionally ready to change, it still needs a lot of facts and examples and here one must be ready to interrogate the company’s legacy metrics of success. For instance, most content companies are under the mistaken belief that their content is valuable and can be monetized when the truth is that access to content and new ways of monetizing content is really the future. Data and examples that illustrate this gets the attention of the money folks and the strategic leadership of a firm whose support is key to drive change.
8 Inspirational Leadership is key: At some stage the numbers can be supportive, fear can be reduced, peoples incentives aligned and the cultural issues addressed but that alone is not enough. At some stage there is a jump into a void that must take place. It is here that the leadership of a company must stand up and inspire. People follow people and not power point slides and excel spreadsheets.